Let the games begin: Eight matches that will shape the Rugby World Cup
Daily Maverick highlights the biggest matches of the Rugby World Cup (RWC) pool phase that could determine who qualifies for the playoffs. Four of them are on the opening weekend.
France vs New Zealand: 8 September, St Denis
Both sides will be desperate to make a statement in the opening match of the tournament. France need to start well in front of their home fans, while the All Blacks need to bounce back in the wake of a record 35-7 defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham. The winner of this clash should go on to top Pool A – barring a loss to Italy, Namibia or Uruguay – and ensure that they avoid the “strongest” qualifier from Pool B in the quarterfinals.
England vs Argentina: 9 September, Marseille
England have dropped to eighth place in the World Rugby rankings following their recent defeat to Fiji at home. Expectations have been tempered ahead of their World Cup campaign, and they will go into their first clash as the underdogs against a resurgent Argentina. If the Pumas win this match, they should take control of Pool D, which also includes Japan, Samoa and newcomers Chile, and secure a less challenging path to the semifinals.
South Africa vs Scotland: 10 September, Marseille
The Boks (second in the rankings) will face Scotland (fifth) in the “Pool of Death” opener in Marseille. The winner of this game will increase their chances of qualifying for the playoffs – and facing France or New Zealand in the quarterfinals – while the loser will head into the next big clash with Ireland (first) needing a victory to advance.
Wales vs Fiji: 10 September, Bordeaux
Fiji have added a few more layers to their game since competing in Japan four years ago, and are expected to secure at least one upset win at the tournament in France. The islanders’ rise has corresponded with Wales’ decline – with Warren Gatland’s side currently ranked 10th in the world. If Fiji win this big Pool C fixture, they should pick up subsequent victories against Georgia and Portugal to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007. If Wales lose, they will head into their next big game against Australia needing a win to keep their qualification hopes alive.
South Africa vs Ireland: 23 September, St Denis
Apart from the opening game between France and New Zealand, this could well be the biggest game of the pool phase. Ireland should secure wins against Romania and Tonga, and if the Boks beat Scotland and Romania, the two sides will be neck-and-neck at the top of Pool B. The winner of this match will edge ahead in that race. Oh, and it’s No. 1 against No. 2 on the world rankings (at the start of the tournament).
Wales vs Australia: 24 September, Lyon
Australia have lost all five of their matches to date in 2023. They should be too strong for Georgia, though, as well as Fiji – who may be targeting the game against Wales rather than the subsequent match against the two-time champions. Eddie Jones’ side should build up a head of steam ahead of the crunch Pool C clash against Wales. The Wallabies will be gunning for a win that strengthens their bid for a top-place finish – and a quarterfinal match-up against the second-placed team in Pool D, which could well be England or Samoa. Depending on Wales’ result against Fiji in the first round, the Dragons may be scrambling for survival at this point.
England vs Samoa: 7 October, Lille
England have been written off by their own media in the lead-up to the World Cup, with some going as far as to claim that Steve Borthwick’s side will lose to Japan and Samoa, and fail to qualify for the playoffs. Japan have declined since hosting the World Cup in 2019, but Samoa – who have been bolstered by a clutch of high-profile stars – will take some beating during the pool phase. If Argentina beat England on the opening weekend of the tournament, and Samoa collect wins against Chile and Japan, then the final pool clash between the islanders and England will be a knockout fixture, with the winner advancing to face the top-placed side in Pool C.
Ireland vs Scotland: 7 October, St Denis
The result of this game may decide whether Ireland, Scotland and even South Africa qualify for the playoffs.
If the Boks beat Scotland in their first fixture and then lose to Ireland, they may need the Irish to down the Scots in order to qualify for the playoffs. If Scotland beat Ireland, and if all of the top-ranked Pool B sides finish the group phase with the same number of wins, then the final standings may be determined by bonus points and points difference (a similar scenario will unfold if the Boks lose to Scotland, but beat Ireland – as they will then need Scotland to down Ireland in the latter game in Paris).
If the Boks beat both Celtic nations, however, and go on to bank wins against Romania and Tonga, they will top Pool B and face the runners-up in Pool A – which will in all likelihood be the loser of the tournament opener between France and the All Blacks. DM
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